There are numerous destinations around the world famous for the longevity of their residents.
In Japan, the cheerful centenarians of Okinawa have earned it the nickname “Land of the Immortals”. Campodimele, the Italian “Village of Eternity”, is testimony to the Mediterranean diet. In the sunny California city of Loma Linda, a community of Seventh-day Adventists reaps the benefits of clean living.
There’s a long-lived corner of the globe you’ve never heard so much about, and it’s home to the world’s only Museum of Longevity. That is Lerik in southern Azerbaijan.
The South Caucasus country is home to several regions known for producing residents who live to triple-digit ages, including Lankaran and Nagorno-Karabakh. But another, Lerik, is believed to have the highest concentration of centenarians.
In this emerald land high above the clouds in the Talysh Mountains, reached via loop after loop of a winding road, people seem to have discovered the secret to a long and healthy life.
The Museum of Longevity, divided into two rooms, built in 1991 and renovated in 2010, houses more than 2,000 artifacts documenting the lives and memories of the region’s oldest inhabitants.
Track individual lifespans with household objects they have outlived, such as three generations of clothes irons. There are trunks full of scarves and shirts, silver jugs and bowls, beautifully knitted socks, and hand-dyed rugs that are still brightly colored despite their age.
And then there are the letters, written in both Azerbaijani and Russian: personal artifacts so old that the ink is starting to fade.
Perhaps the most eye-catching feature are the portraits of centenarians that cover the museum’s walls. These images, dating back to the 1930s, were donated by the French photographer Frederic Lachop.
The museum and official statistics of Azerbaijan define the term “centenary” more vaguely than you would expect: here it refers to anyone over the age of 90.
However, in 1991, more than 200 people over 100 years old were registered in Lerik, out of a population of 63,000.
The numbers have since been less impressive, with locals blaming radiation from communications towers and environmental decline, but they could easily be due to more rigorous record-keeping.
Today there are 11 people over 100 years old, out of a local population of 83,800 inhabitants.
The current oldest citizen of Lerik is Raji Ibrahimova, who is 105 years old. It’s a good year, but it pales in comparison to the age supposedly reached by the area’s most famous centenarian, Shirali Muslumov, a shepherd who supposedly lived to be 168.
The yellow pages of his passport state that he was born in 1805 and his gravestone states that he died in 1973. If true, he would be the oldest person to ever live.
Unfortunately, in the early 19th century, birth registrations rarely took place in remote villages like his birthplace, Barzavu, so there is no certifiable record of when he was born.
The countless letters sent from all over the world on the occasion of his various birthdays leave no doubt that he was indeed of a very respectable age, but perhaps it is best to allow for a minimum margin of error of 20 years.
Among those who corresponded with Muslumov was the Vietnamese communist leader Ho Chi Minh, who sent him a postcard greeting him with the tenderness: “Dear grandfather.”
This longevity gene seems to run in the family. Her 95-year-old daughter, Halima Qambarova, tells CNN Travel that — while she may not live to 168, like her father — she at least hopes to live to 150, like her grandfather, or 130, like her aunt. .
When the weather turns cold, most centenarians move to the milder coastal climes of Lankaran, but Qambarova was still in the village of Barzavu in Lerik when CNN Travel passed by her father’s modest two-story house, surrounded by huge apple trees and pears (probably contemporaries of his famous father).
Sitting by the window, wrapped in a shawl, she speaks with a slight accent, often switching to her native language, Talyscian, a dialect spoken by just 200,000 people and classified as “vulnerable” by UNESCO.
He shows his passport, which shows neither the month nor the date of birth, only the year: 1924. He may be 95 years old, but he is fully present, interacting with his great-grandchildren and demonstrating his lively sense of humor . When asked her age, she cheerfully replies: “15”.
“The quiet of the mind is part of their secret,” says the museum guide. “They stay away from stress, think about life quite philosophically, live one day at a time, without much planning or worry about the future.”
Qambarova’s day begins at dawn; she doesn’t let herself sleep late. “I get up as soon as I open my eyes,” she says.
He spends the whole day working in the garden or around the house. Her room is small, with a thick, soft carpet and cushions on the floor. Many people here prefer to sleep on the floor, with only a thin blanket instead of a mattress, as it is believed to be the healthiest way to rest their back.
Contrary to popular belief, Lerik centenarians eat meat, but have inherited a preference for fresh dairy products such as shor (cottage cheese), butter, milk, and the yogurt drink ayran from previous centenarians, for whom the abstinence from meat was more due to economic circumstance.
Qambarova’s daughter-in-law brings a large plate with pears and apples from their garden and some aromatic tea.
It is herbal, floral and refreshing. Back at the museum, the guide shows a table with the various herbs native to Lerik.
“The secret of long life is good nutrition, the minerals contained in the spring water and the herbs we add to the tea to prevent diseases, so people do not have to take any medicine, but only use natural remedies,” the guide says. In fact, Qambarova insists she has never taken any medications.
Beyond its windows, the village may seem to be silent and still. But the physical work that the villagers do every day is immense. From dawn to dusk they work in the gardens, fields and at home. They sew, knit and take care of large families.
This was the lifestyle of Mammadkhan Abbasov, a 103-year-old from the village of Jangamiran. Sitting on the carpet, facing the window, the centenarian has almost completely lost his sight and barely hears his son telling him that the guests have arrived, but when he finally notices, he begins to sing, offering prayers and good wishes.
At Abbasov’s side is his great-grandson: there is a century of difference between them.
Just like Qambarova, Abbasov has been a busy villager his entire life, working in the fields until about seven years ago, when his eyesight deteriorated.
“He was always a good man and lived his life properly,” his son says.
As for food, he eats “everything God gives him” with only one restriction: he never drinks alcohol.
Abbasov attributes his long life to daily physical activity, not to the point of exhaustion, but enough to challenge the body.
In addition to the good nutrition provided by the farm’s produce, he also drank liters of ice-cold spring water, rich in minerals said to contribute to longevity.
Headache-inducing mountain altitudes may also be a factor.
A 2017 study conducted by the University of Navarra, Spain, found that living at high altitude reduces the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. A 2011 study conducted by the University of Colorado at Denver found that these skyrocketing residents are also living longer.
The age of some of these famous centenarians may still be disputed, but here in Lerik their legacy lives on through people who still respect Lerik’s simple secret of longevity: physical activity, good nutrition, plenty of water and an attitude towards life which says: We only live once, but if we do it right, once is enough.
Museum of Longevity, A.Asadullayev Street 22, Lerik, Azerbaijan; (025) 274-47-11